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  • I went for a walk on a recent Saturday.

    At one of my favorite spots, the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary on the Mississippi River at West Alton.

    I walked out onto Ellis Island. Not really an island, it's a long and narrow peninsula tethered to the embankment that carries the highway over the Clark Bridge to Alton, Illinois.
  • There was nobody there.
  • That's usually the case even though the island is just off Alton, Illinois, a pretty large town on the north side of the Mississippi. There were some folks by the entrance, but they were concentrating on fishing from the rocky banks and had no interest in a long hike further inland.

    Nobody there. Along with that a very strong sense of there being nobody there. This element of comprehensive solitude is perhaps the greatest single component of what I call the North American experience. My experience, that is. There is simply no equivalent in the United Kingdom. Despite there being plenty of wild areas without much population. But even in those spots there is always the awareness that nearby, perhaps only a few miles away, is a large town and a lot of people. You never truly feel alone.

    So what's different on Ellis Island? After all, there is a large town and lots of people just across the river.

    Difficult to answer. It's an emotional response. A sense drawn from the land beneath my feet. The ground simply seems less used.

    I might not feel this way if I lived on either of the coasts. I might feel it more if I lived further west in areas even more sparsely populated. The Mississippi River valley is, in common with all great river valleys, a center of local population.

    What I am certain of, though, is that I love the feeling.
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